La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s Whiplash, opens with a morning jam on an LA freeway. It’s familiar, mundane. Before long, though, the drivers are hopping out of their cars, singing and dancing their way across the gridlock in unison.
For Broadway diehards, it’ll be a pleasantly familiar moment of escapism and joy. For others, it’ll be another reminder of why they hate musicals in the first place. But to judge La La Land solely on the opening number is to do a disservice to the rest of the movie — you need to stick with it to understand what makes this movie so special and deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it at both the Venice Film Festival and TIFF.
For Chazelle, the movie is something of a love letter to classic cinema and jazz, but don’t think this is just some remake of Singing in the Rain. The story and characters are more subversive than that, with intimate moments between the characters overtaking the grand spectacles. “I think that’s what’s beautiful about musicals,” Chazelle explained, “is that you can use the heights of the fantasy genre to get at real life. So I wanted to try to push that idea even further here, and really try to embrace the ridiculousness of the genre with people dancing on the freeway, etcetera, but also have it be a very intimate, private kind of story of two people, and a story where things don’t always work out.”
Chazelle’s deft ability to reinvent and play with the genre is only part of the equation. The fantastical story is also grounded by the believable chemistry between Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a jazz musician looking to revive the dying genre, and Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress. This is their third time working together after all, a callback to Old Hollywood when actors were often paired together in multiple features. And while both were drawn to the opportunity to work together again, they approached the idea of a musical from different perspectives.
Stone already had an appreciation of musicals from starring as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and was eager to experience making one on film. “You’re transported when you go to see a stage musical,” she says, “but not in the same way. You’re seeing it all from the same vantage point, you’re never moving. Whereas the camera can sweep in these incredible ways and you want to see it on a big screen, these classic musicals, and I think that’s behind the intention of what Damien wanted to make. So really, ultimately, the musical genre in film is, I think, one of the most cinematic genres that exists, because it is so very much a movie.”
Gosling, a musician himself, was hooked by the music: “I had met with Damien for a drink at a restaurant near my house. We didn’t really talk much about La La Land, but I knew he was working on a musical, and after he sent me a piece of music, a theme [City of Stars]. I just… I thought it was really beautiful. I played that piece of music on the piano more than I can ever count, and it never got old.”
So whether you’re a musical buff, a noted hater of spontaneous bursts of song, or land somewhere in between, there’s something here for everyone. The story will draw you in. The songs will get your toes tapping. And the realistic portrayal of love and loss, of life’s stumbles and successes, by two actors at the top of their game will have you leaving the theatre walking on a cloud.